For more than a decade, the $64,000 question in golf has been "how to grow the game?"
Adjusting for inflation, anyone who can come up with a foolproof answer to that stands to make a lot more than 64 Grand.
Once held up primarily by white males, the game now is defined by shifts in ethnicity and a declining customer base that has a wide range of goals and interests, from traditionalists who like the game the way it is, to those who view it purely as an instrument of social interaction and refuse to fill in a scorecard; from those who adhere to the game's many rules, to those who prefer to play music from their smart phones; from those who would rather hire a caddie to those who won't play if they can't ride a GolfBoard.
Good luck with that.
Baby boomers, golf's bread and butter, are entering retirement, and their influence will slowly and steadily decline. Although recently overtaken by millennials as the country's largest population segment (together those two groups comprise about half the country populous), baby boomers should continue to bolster the game for the next generation, but what happens next is anyone's guess. If successive generations show an accelerated disinterest in golf like Generation X and millennials, the challenges facing the golf business will be significant.
Millennials, loosely defined as those born between the early 1980s to late 1990s, are 25 percent of the overall population, but account for only 20 percent (90 million) of the 450 million rounds played annually. By comparison, baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, comprise 24 percent of the population, but make up 115 million (25 percent) of all rounds played.
When it comes to golf - and a lot of other things - millennials take a different approach than those who came before them. Generally speaking, research shows they prefer social interaction over competition and a relaxed atmosphere over strict rules. As a rule as many as half of millennials say golf takes too long to play and has too many rules.
The bottom line is millennials still represent a lot of buying power - as much as $200 billion annually - and golf's stakeholders must figure out how to make the game more attractive to them, as well as juniors, minorities and women. That might mean allowing music on the golf course and relaxed policies on cell phone usage and dress codes.
In a recent study, the NGF lumped millennial golfers into three groups: throwbackers, breakfast ballers and dabblers.
Throwbackers make up about half the millennial golfer population. Most likely introduced to the game by their parents, their views of the game reflect those of older golfers. They like the game the way it is. They practice, follow the rules, keep score and thrive on competition. They also make up only about 3.6 million of the U.S. golfer database of 21 million players.
Breakfast ballers, about 22 percent of the millennial golf segment, are driven by social interaction, and are more likely to incorporate social media, playing music over their smart phones and and alcohol consumption into their golf experience. They believe golf has too many rules, they take mulligans at will, improve their lie anywhere on the course and rarely keep score.
Dabblers, 27 percent of the millennial golfer index, are even less committed than breakfast ballers. They tend to be women, play sporadically (like their descriptor implies), do not self-identify as golfers and admit they don't like the game all that much anyway.
In his most recent newsletter, Jim Koppenhaver of Pellucid Corp., questions if millennials are shunning golf only, or whether they are saying no to physical activity in general.
As the NGF study shows it is impossible to paint any demographic with a broad brush, but millennials overall are active, they just choose to spend their energy in ways their parents and grandparents did not. Generally speaking, they don't join gyms and don't participate in competitive activities like older generations.
They don't do a lot of things that other age groups would consider traditional.
For example, about 90 percent of all baby boomers were married at least once by age 40. Among millennials, that number is down to about 70 percent, according to research at Bentley University in Massachusetts.
They take what others would consider a non-traditional approach to fitness and exercise, as well, research shows. For millennial, fitness is a lifestyle that incorporates physical well being and quality of life. To that end, any physical activity they engage in likely will include a social component that allows them to interact with friends and family.
Golf, if it is going to thrive into the future, must reflect those changes in consumerism.
The challenge will be retaining enough of the game's old ways to appeal to traditionalists, while incorporating enough changes to pull in less avid golfers, all without alienating one group or the other. Survival indeed will mean being all things to all people.
That will be a challenge for everyone and results will be case by case, club by club. There won't be any cookie-cutter solutions from the industry's alphabets, so don't wait for one.